TCS Daily


Cheers for Fears

By Christopher C. Hull - April 17, 2003 12:00 AM

This week in Ur we witnessed what may have been the birth of a new national government in Iraq. That meeting, and the Iraqi anarchy resulting from the fall of Baghdad, has given us an excellent chance to observe in practice theories floated separately and in contrast by two Thomases - Hobbes and Jefferson.

Hobbes (1588-1679), scarred by the British civil war, argued that the absence of government led to a "war of every man against every man," a conflict that rendered life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." His great work, Leviathan (1651), concluded that nothing was worse than the absence of authority. No government was so bad that it was worth risking a re-entry to this anarchic "state of nature."

Therefore, Hobbes asserted, "Subjects are to be taught not to affect change in government," since "this desire of change is like the breach of the first of God's commandments." But the deeper sentiment was found outside Leviathan, when he summed himself up thus: "Fear and I were born brothers." His views reflect it.

Today, Iraqis understand Hobbes' fear. Beginning in Basra and then extending to Nasiriya, Baghdad, and up to Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk, the power vacuum left by the departing Baath Party sucked looters and violence into its wake. Without any controlling legal authority, Iraq descended into the state of nature Hobbes had posited - a war of all against all. During mass looting in Baghdad, Faleh Hassan, whose brother was killed and who was arrested for deserting from the army and given a never-carried-out death sentence, argued, "People believe these things belong to them."

But with all the fear and loathing, why were the citizens still celebrating? Why did Kurds in the North, Shiites in the South, and Baghdadis of all stripes take to the streets to crow their newfound freedom? "You come in looking for a fight," U.S. Col. Michael S. Linnington told the Washington Post, "and instead you find guys hugging and kissing you." Hardly a sign that the Iraqis are rejecting the overthrow of their government. Why are they not cowering?

One answer is found with the other Thomas. It is Jefferson (1743-1826) who is traditionally credited with penning the Declaration of Independence. That document takes the contrary view from Hobbes. As any reasonably well-rehearsed American high school student knows, the Declaration states that men are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights," namely "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," and that to protect those rights, "Governments are instituted among Men."

It is precisely the security, freedom, and property to which Jefferson was alluding that Iraqis found dragged through the streets after their government fell. Because of the pain that losing a government causes, the Declaration argues in lesser-known phrases, "all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed."

But Jefferson does not conclude as Hobbes does that defending life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness means that a people can never rise up and rebel. Just the opposite is true, in his mind: "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends," the Declaration reads, "it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." In fact, the document contends, when "a long train of Abuses and Usurpations" seeks to reduce a people "under absolute Despotism," it is not just "their Right, it is their Duty to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." Repeating that thought, in 1800, when Jefferson was through the tumult of the Revolutionary War, he wrote in a private letter, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

One form of that tyranny was thrown off when Saddam Hussein's regime fell. The reaction last week of Amjad Rashid in Kurdish-dominated Irbil reflects relief at the regaining of life and liberty: "It's over. Thank God. Thank God. Thank God. He killed us. He tortured us. It's finished." Said Hassan of Baghdad of his new pursuit of happiness, "I want to feel that I'm a human being, I want to feel that I'm free, and that no one can take it away. I want to work, so that my family has enough to live. I want to live like everyone else in this world who lives in peace."

True, it took the "Tip of the Spear" First Marine Division, the 101st Airborne, and their compatriots to rid Rashid, Hassan and their fellow Iraqis of the Hussein regime, but their words - and the celebrations in the streets - nonetheless echo Jefferson.

The Iraq War and the meeting yesterday in Ur demonstrate that Jefferson was right, and Hobbes was wrong. The Iraqi people pulling down a statue of their dictator made clear with their revelry that when a government is oppressive, the onset of the State of Nature was not only reason for trepidation, but also reason for joy. Overthrowing a tyrant is worth enduring for the interregnum that follows in which no one reigns supreme, because the regime that follows promises freedom to its people.

So it was in 1776; so it is today.
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